“Divine, Messianic Force”

This is a fascinating video of 10 more obscure Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes. Every quote in this clip is powerful and Dr. King’s rhetoric at its best, but it’s quote number 7 is what I really want to talk about:

And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.”

– Martin Luther King Jr., in a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967 titled “It’s a Dark Day in Our Nation.”

There’s a fairly popular teaching in our Church that ebbs and flows with the cultural winds on American exceptionalism. It’s the idea that this land is a choice land, blessed above others, a promised land where good people are led and blessed and become prosperous as long as we follow God. Because of this, the United States of America is God’s chosen country for bringing about His work[1], and this, of course, includes the Constitution and the Founding Fathers springing forth from the well of Divine Inspiration. For many Americans, the Restoration and the last dispensation of the latter-days could not happen anywhere else because specifically America is just that awesome with religious freedom and all. Imagine, we say, if the Restoration happened anywhere else before it did? It would have been squashed like a tiny bug by giant, oppressive, narrow-minded governments! It would have never been given the time and ability to flourish like it would have in America! According to this mind view, no new deviations of Christianity ever occurred between the establishment of the Catholic church and 1830 (hint: This is not true; see also Reformation).

Some members see this as problematic as the Church transitions from an American church to a global one, and most non-US members either ignore it or see it as a quixotic American quirk that doesn’t really hold as much importance as principles like agency, the plan of salvation, the family, or saving priesthood ordinances. However, in the US at least, many Mormons fiercely hold on to this cherished ideal almost as much as guns, and especially in dark times such as recession, the fall of our capitalist banks, and the fact that our president is a fundamentalist Christian turned Islamo-Kenyan-non-American terror-bomber-in-chief, this sentiment is experiencing a great deal of popularity currently within the Jell-O Intermountain Corridor.

Martin Luther King, Jr., however, sees a massive problem in this kind of American exceptionalism, and that is arrogance. This sermon was given in the height of the Vietnam War, a time when America truly saw itself as the policeman of the world, stomping the Commies where’er they be found. Of course, hindsight if 20/20 and we saw the ultimate aftermath — a humiliating military defeat tactical withdrawal, and a massive humbling experience for the United States that would last until Ronald Reagan, who gave the US the wonderful gift to feel smug about itself again. For Dr. King, exceptionalist thinking brings about arrogance, and we should never let anyone think that we, for one minute, are some kind of messianic force for good in the global community. It leads to dangerous thinking, and it leads to lost lives.

It was a big problem with the Nephites, too, the previous recipients of God’s double-edged promise regarding the Promised Land known later as ‘Merica. Repeatedly, the Nephites were warned that only when we follow God’s commandments would God continue to let them even exist on this sacred ground. And what was the number one problem with the Nephites?

Pride. We even have a cycle named after them in Mormon terminology.

I can’t help but wonder if Dr. King is right. Maybe the whole exceptionalist thinking, the feeling that we’re living on special land and somehow that in turn makes us special, is incredibly dangerous and we should do away with it all together. Maybe this land really is special. Maybe it really does have some kind of special blessing-inherent property. Maybe the Constitution really is God-inspired, 3/5 included. Maybe even the Founding Fathers, warts and all, were inspired as well. But! Does that make us special, just by association? Just because we won the birth lottery and happened to be born in some specific, man-made, artificial political borders?

I don’t think Dr. King thinks so. And I’m inclined to agree with him.
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[1] This conclusion is not a very solid one. Does the scriptures mean that North America as a continent is blessed? Then what about Canada? Is Canada the chosen land, too? Sadly, this question would cause many American Mormons to hesitate or say no. Then why America? Because we wrote the Constitution?

In addition, most scholars seem to agree that the Book of Mormon stories, if they ever occurred, would have occurred more likely in the Mesoamerican region. So does that mean in all actually we were wrong and Mexico is actually the blessed nation? Many people point towards the fact that many patriarchs declare South Americans descendants or adoptees of the tribe of Mannaseh as spiritual proof that they are Book of Mormon descendants. So…maybe the blessed messianic nation is actually south of the border?

Or maybe the promise of blessings for obedience and destruction for disobedience isn’t necessarily geocentric?

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8 Comments

Filed under politico, religion

8 responses to ““Divine, Messianic Force”

  1. E-rock

    I think my man Theo had something to say regarding this attitude:

    “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

    Truly it is easy to sit from the sidelines, having benefited from the sacrifices of so many great men and women, and criticize the work they have done, to nit-pick and highlight all their failings. But is it right?

    • Ted

      Wait, what? Are you saying MLK just sat on the sidelines and didn’t make sacrifices and just nitpicked? Or are you referring to me? Because if you’re referring to me, that’s fine, but I’m pretty sure MLK qualifies as the kind of man Theo would praise.

    • Ted

      Also, while on the topic of that quote, I heart Theodore Roosevelt. He is one of my favorite presidents, and I especially like this quote, but it presents a kind of a problematic situation with its potential for cyclical madness. Couldn’t people complaining about how the sex trade exists in the US be considered “nitpicky” and “negative”? And couldn’t people complaining about people complaining about the sex trade be considered nitpicky as well?

  2. Beth

    I think I would like to see your treatises include more source material. I only mention it because it seems you like to use your blog as a forum to encourage sch0larly discussion, but you don’t include, for example, what Hugh Nibley had to say on the subject.

    Same with your discussion on polygamy. It’s mostly your thoughts and opinions, but since you’re wanting to incite greater theological discussion I think actual quotes from the Manifesto would have been warranted.

    • Ted

      Out of curiosity, what source material would you like to see in terms of this particular article?

      I could, for example, add in scriptures that point towards our basis for American exceptionalism that we use, such as Nephi’s vision of the promised land and its future, scriptures that talk about the inspired origins of the Constitution. You mentioned Nibley as well, so do you mean a variance of opinions or more of the actual “primary sources” on the subject? Or maybe both?

      Just trying to refine and make sure I’m understanding your helpful constructive criticism.

  3. I guess I mean both.

    I know it’s just your blog and everything, but I know you take it pretty seriously and that you like to be scholarly about it.

    • Ted

      I’ll keep that in mind. I’ll try and dig up some stuff today and post it before the evening. Thanks for your suggestions!

  4. I would love to see you rework this thing, making it a little more assertive of a more comprehensive point. Acknowledge the place that America held in 1820-1890 as far as the growth of the church and its initial establishment, but make it clear that such does not mean that economic systems and practices, as well as military and political moves here are not ‘blessed’ by association. I mostly want you to do that for selfish reasons– I want to disprove a friend of mine without doing the work.

    😀

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